The First Women’s Rights Convention

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Regardless of your political affiliation, the nomination of Hillary Clinton as the first woman to be the acknowledged Presidential candidate by a major political party calls for a bit of historical reminiscence on the history of the women’s rights movement. Below is a piece distilled from chapter 15 of my book, The Yankee Road.

If there is a starting point for the 1848 Women’s Rights Convention and the organized movement that followed it, it came eight years earlier at the 1840 World Anti-Slavery Convention in London, England. While there, the prominent American abolitionist, Lucretia Mott, met the new wife of a New York delegate, Elizabeth Cady Stanton. Stanton’s husband, also an ardent abolitionist, had joined with the majority of delegates in opposing the recognition of the women delegates, the British organizers having insisted they sit off to one side behind a screen and not participate directly in the proceedings. The new Mrs. Stanton was not a delegate, so she was seated in the ‘ladies’ section’ as an observer. Being there, she met the disallowed female delegates and was quite impressed by Mott. The two women then spent a lot of time in conversation about women’s deficient social and legal status. Henry Stanton, in the meantime, reversed his stand on female participation, when he found himself confronted on this issue by the powerful personality of his wife.

By 1847, Stanton had relocated his law practice from Boston to western New York, in Seneca Falls. His wife found herself in a small town with small children and a husband who was away a lot of the time. Being strong-willed and impulsive, she was keen to become involved in social action.

In the summer of 1848, a few months after she had settled in, Stanton discovered that Lucretia Mott was in nearby Waterloo NY, visiting her sister. It seemed an opportune time to resurrect the project of creating a women’s rights movement they had discussed, first in London eight years before, and then in Boston a year later. Since the New York Legislature had passed the Women’s Property Rights Act that spring, the topic was of public interest.

Mott and some Quaker friends invited Stanton to visit them one afternoon. In talking of this project, they decided to take advantage of Mott’s presence to feature her as the ‘star attraction’ at a founding Convention to promote women’s rights. ‘Conventions’ were a popular political device of the time to bring together sympathizers and activists for various causes. These local women had no real experience in organizing a Convention, but Mott and, in particular, her husband, who was along for the trip, did.

Hurriedly, they put together a site in Seneca Falls and fixed a date, July 19-20. They got the word out as far as Rochester and Syracuse to the west and east. The Convention was attended by about 300 people.

For the guiding document of the1848 Convention, Stanton fixed on the Declaration of Independence that had been written by Jefferson almost exactly 72 years before. Stanton’s version was a Declaration of Sentiments’, written in the Jeffersonian style, followed by 11 Resolutions. The document was debated, clause by clause, at the Convention. The Resolutions were all approved unanimously, except for one advocating women’s suffrage.

Lucretia Mott had opposed this Resolution before the convention began, thinking it would bring ridicule and retard the nascent movement, but Stanton was firm. Frederick Douglass, the former slave and now Rochester NY anti-slavery activist, attended the Convention and was instrumental in reassuring most attendees that this Resolution ought to be supported. About 2/3 of the delegates signed the document, though many retracted in the face of later criticism.

When, among the various articles of reportage and opinion resulting from the Convention, Elizabeth Cady Stanton read that the publisher of the New York Herald had derisively reprinted her Declaration in full, she exclaimed, ‘Just what I wanted!’ The drama in the declaration had publicized the nascent movement across the country and a 72-year political action campaign was underway. In fact, beyond the achievement of suffrage, or the vote, one could say it is still under way, 168 years later.

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